Employers Counting on Incentives to Reopen Offices

There’s a battle brewing between employers who want workers back in the office and employees who have enjoyed working from home since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

While some CEOs like Tesla’s Elon Musk have ordered employees to come in five days a week, other business leaders realize the difficulty in returning to pre-pandemic times if they want to retain a satisfied workforce.

Even hybrid work schedules, in which employees come in the office for only a few days a week has upset employees, with Apple workers petitioning against the tech giant’s three-days-a-week policy that went into effect after Labor Day.

Just recently, General Motors Corp. walked back its plans for bringing white-collar workers back to the office after backlash from a decision requiring employees to return to in-person work three days a week.

When millions of office employees started working from home in 2020, the plan for most was eventually to return to work, not stay remote forever. But now, many workers really don’t want to go back to the office, and companies are struggling to figure out how to convince them to return, offering enticements like free food, prizes, and even alcoholic beverages to draw workers back.

Several recent studies provide companies and organizations with answers to this important question: how can they get employees to return to their offices?

In April 2022, workplace platform Envoy surveyed 800 company leaders who shared the incentives and changes they are employing to encourage people to return to the office.

According to Envoy’s survey results:

  • Eighty-eight percent of companies are using incentives to get their workers back on site.
  • Seventy-seven percent of organizations have adopted a hybrid working model, with an “at-will” hybrid policy being the most popular.
  • Sixty-one percent of businesses are making changes to the physical workplace.
  • Five percent have no office attendance policy.

Blackhawk Network, an e-commerce payment platform, recently conducted research into the workplace preferences of more than 3,000 Americans. The company found that while remote workers want to stay remote, incentives are effective tools in encouraging employees to return to physical offices.

The study concluded that “Incentives can help ease the transition while helping employers stay competitive.”

Real estate consultancy JLL surveyed more than 240 HR professionals to find out the most preferred back-to-office incentives to bring more employees back and ease the transition to hybrid work schedules.

The most popular incentives included free meals and beverages, preferably fresh and healthy dining options. According to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, making nutrition a key part of an employee wellness program helps to create a culture of health and wellness, helping employees maintain good health and productivity.

Other incentives named: onsite gyms or access to nearby fitness centers; free or subsidized transportation; quality office design to promote in-person collaboration; and access to flexible work facilities such as cafés and co-working facilities.

Business consultant Andrea B. Clement said that from what she has observed, the companies who have been most successful at getting employees back into the office offer several different inducements such as flexibility, autonomy and a positive work environment.

‘’Employees are expected to be in the office but are allowed the time and flexibility needed to manage family and personal needs. Micromanaging people and/or requiring strict, set hours at one’s desk is no longer really feasible for most professional services firms,” she noted. ‘’Companies who already had an extremely positive, employee-focused work environment seem to be having better results with getting employees back into the office, without losing them to other companies that offer remote work.”

Part of this is a messaging issue. Employers with legitimate reasons to want people back have not figured out how to communicate those reasons in a convincing way. Some teams are more productive in-person, and some remote workers underestimate the impact that staying remote has had on their team’s workflow. Whatever the issues, employers need to spell that out.

Otherwise, if employers do not find ways to significantly increase the rewards for returning, efforts to cajole workers into giving up their newfound work freedoms and flexibility are likely to keep failing.

Brian Galonek

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